Pastor Scott Andrews | January 2, 2022
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas is the number one-selling single of all time with about 50 million copies sold worldwide. That’s impressive, but I suggest it would be impossible to name the most-sung song of all time. But if I were to venture a guess, Amazing Grace would have to be near the top. Can you imagine the number of times the hymn has been sung in church services, funerals and concerts since it was first written by John Newton in 1772? One Newton biographer estimates it is sung some 10 million times annually. The website Allmusic says it has been recorded some 7,000 times. It has been sung by famous artists to include Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Andy Williams, and last year, Carrie Underwood. You might be surprised to know it was sung by Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock. It was even used to memorialize Spock after his death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Many of you are familiar with the story of this famous hymn. The first verse reads:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
What’s amazing is the number of people who sing that without knowing what they’re saying. You see, they don’t really see themselves a wretch. Newton knew intimately of what he wrote. He was born to a shipmaster and sailed with his father as a boy. His dad wanted him to go to Jamaica and work on a sugar plantation as a slave master. But at 18, Newton was forced into the navy aboard the HMS Harwick. Within a year, after trying to desert, he was stripped to his waist and received eight dozen lashes in front of the crew.
He was eventually rescued by a friend of his father and began serving aboard a slave ship, the Greyhound. By his own admission, he lived a life great debauchery. The ship would travel from England to West Africa to the New World, carrying slaves, stacked like cargo. Once, on the way back to England, the ship encountered a severe storm and almost sank. Newton prayed for deliverance, which began his journey toward amazing grace. It wasn’t till years later he truly became a Christian, renouncing the slave trade. In fact, he joined William Wilberforce in the crusade to abolish slavery in England. But his days as a slave trader haunted him until his death. Is it any wonder, being saved from that horrid life of sin – his awful crimes against humanity – that Newton would write of amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me. Now, there have been recent attempts to rewrite this hymn, and others like it, to make them ostensibly less offensive. What do I mean? That saved a wretch like me has been popularly rewritten to be:
“That saved and strengthened me”
“That saved a soul like me”
“That saved and set me free”
…all of which changes Newton’s original meaning. But this is quite common today – who wants to be a wretch – so offensive, self-incriminating and self-abasing? I’m a diamond in the rough – just needed God to wipe off a little of the dirt. For that matter, who wants to be a worm? And so, Isaac Watts’ hymn originally written:
Alas and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head,
For such worm as I?
Has become, less offensively, “For sinners such as I?” I would make a couple of comments. First, a self-awareness of our miserable wretchedness is in keeping with Scripture. Second, I would suggest the closer we draw toward Christ and His grace, the more aware we become of our own deplorable condition. You show me a mature or maturing Christian, and I’ll show you one who is broken and humble in the presence of Christ. Show me a shallow and immature Christian, and I’ll show you one who is self-focused, lacks humility, and takes offense at being called a wretched worm. They’re not sinners, and they’re not lost – just needed a little course correction.
Now, I know the move to remove such language is an attempt to make the gospel more palatable, more acceptable, less offensive to non-believers. But any presentation of the gospel must include the truth of our sinful lives and horrid rebellion against a good and sovereign King. Attempts to minimize our sin and magnify our own self-worth are not in keeping with Scripture. We are hopeless and helpless without Christ. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus made a way for hopeless, helpless wretches like me.
One of the challenges is growing up in a Christian home, where rules are made and mostly kept, church is part of life, and sin seems minimized, trivialized, or at least sanitized. We were never slave traders; we can always find sinners much worse than us – why, God is lucky to have me on His team. Of course, I’m a Christian – I can’t remember not being good.
And yet, if we have an understanding of our deplorable condition – and what God did to rescue us – I believe the gospel will become more precious, and change our lives. We won’t be able to hear the word gospel without it moving our emotions. It will become, as it is, the most precious news – amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
This is the way the gospel is presented in Scripture – against the dark backdrop of our egregious sin and rebellion. And, having been saved, the gospel then changes our lives. We are not who we were. You’ll remember, for example, in the book of Romans, Paul spends from chapter 1, verse 18, to chapter 3, verse 20, demonstrating that we all – all humanity – are helplessly lost. He introduces his topic – the gospel – in verse 16. But then, he immediately goes to the need for the gospel, verse 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Then he goes on a three-chapter tear, proving that all people are ungodly and unrighteous, deserving the wrath of God. He ends with, “so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God.” He paints a miserable picture – which is where the gospel begins – with our desperate need.
Then, Paul launches into the gospel, with the words, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is not distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
A proper understanding of our sin is needed before a proper understanding of the gospel can be grasped. You cannot go straight to the benefits without the need. We want to go to what we are saved for, but what are we saved from? The wrath of God against our sin. Paul does the same in thing in our study of Titus. Remember he wrote his letter to Titus, his protegee left in Crete, to set what remains in order in the churches on the island. The Cretens were notorious sinners, so Paul addressed their pursuit of holiness within the culture around them. That makes this letter most appropriate for us today. It’s been over a month since we were in the letter, but the last text was Titus 3:1-3, when Paul wrote:
1 Remind them [these new Christians] to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed,
2 to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.
This has been a constant refrain through the book – he expected believers in Crete to be different than their culture. To set themselves apart, to always be ready to do good. Then he got to this challenging verse:
3 For we also once were [like the culture around us] foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.
What a deplorable description of Cretan culture – but don’t miss what Paul said, for we also were once this way – terrible sinners – wretches, you see. He frankly shows the need of salvation – that we were in need of amazing grace. Look at the description – some suggest they can be seen in four couplets. First, we were foolish and disobedient. We were both mentally and morally depraved. We thought foolishly, and acted disobediently. Notice, that’s the opposite of what he calls us to be in verse 1. The words speak of lacking sense and sensibility, and therefore, acting irresponsibly.
We were also deceived and enslaved. Interesting combination of words – we were deceived, that is, led astray by sinful vices, and thereby enslaved. We were slaves to those things that enticed us, and drew us away from righteousness. He gives some examples – various lusts and pleasures, speaking of sexual, sensual sin. Al Mohler says it rightly – the question is not, are you sexually broken – the question is, in what way are you sexually broken.
Next couplet – we spent our life in malice and envy. Malice is wishing people evil while envy is resenting and coveting what they have. Finally, hateful and hating one another describes the mutual hostility of our relationships.
Paul is describing people generally – not all are true of all people at all times, but it characterizes fallen humanity. The important point is: this is who we were. You say, not me, I was saved when I was seven. That’s great – God rescued you from the full potential of your nature, but sinner you were. And all sin is rebellion against God, no matter how much we might minimize and trivialize it. It’s who we were.
But now, having painted the black backdrop of our sin – Paul now holds out the glory of our salvation. He has made it clear it was not something we earned nor deserved. The very fact that we are saved is due only and totally on the gracious provision of God. In these next few verses, he describes the gospel in one of the most stunning passages – actually, one sentence in the Greek – in all of Scripture. Read it with me, Titus 3:4-7.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. In these verses, Paul overwhelms us with undeserved, unmerited gospel truth. He tells us:
- The Source of Saving Grace (4-5a)
- The Way of Saving Grace (5b)
- The Means of Saving Grace (5c-6)
- The Results of Saving Grace (7)
And in these incredible verses, he shows how the entire Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – is involved in our salvation. Starting with the source of saving grace, who is, by the way, the Father. Notice, when we were in our lost and deplorable condition as described in verse 3 – hopeless and helpless – then…but when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared. It was God’s kindness and love that brought us salvation. Undeserving grace. God did not save you because He thought you deserved it – that you just needed a little jumpstart. You were dead in trespasses and sin – and in kindness and love, grace appeared.
This appearing is referring to the appearing of Jesus Christ. Paul said the same thing in II Timothy 1:9-10,
9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity,
10 but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
Notice in our text, it was the expression of God’s kindness and love for us. God’s kindness speaks of His goodness toward us. Which is interesting. You always hear that the biggest objection to the existence of God or the Christian faith is all the evil in the world. If there is a God, why is there so much evil? But here, Paul speaks of God’s goodness – His kindness, even His love toward us.
You see, the evil and brokenness of this world isn’t God’s fault. We sinned, we rebelled. Yes, to be clear, the brokenness of this world is the result of God’s curse on this world, because of our rebellion. It is true, the world does not work right. Even creation groans, waiting for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed. But amazingly, in the midst of our sin against Him, God loved us anyway, and demonstrated His goodness, His kindness toward us. Why do people not talk about that? Because, we are under the false supposition that we are good. That we don’t deserve wrath. We don’t deserve the evil that we brought.
You see, we have this idea that people are basically good, and undeserving of punishment, and deserving of God’s goodness. Recently, Joel Osteen made the statement that in all his associations with people, that he believes that 99% of people are good deep down. What? That’s not the picture the Bible paints. We are not good. If you start with the idea that we are good, it’s an easy leap to then say, God is bad. But the opposite is true. That age old question, why do bad things happen to good people is backwards? Why do good things happen to bad people? Paul gives us the answer: while we were once as described in verse 3, God’s kindness and love appeared anyway. By the way, God’s love is the word philanthropia, from which we get our word philanthropy and philanthropic. God is the ultimate good and philanthropic person in the universe. When we didn’t deserve kindness and love, He gave it anyway.
Paul says it this way in Romans 5, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” John said it this way in I John, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Again, the question is not, if there is a God, why is there so much evil in the world. The question is, if there is a good and holy God, why are we still here? Because, He loved us and demonstrated that love and kindness through the appearing of His Son. This should not make us proud – it should humble us.
Second, He saved us…but how? Now first, you should know, everyone translates it this way, but in the Greek, He saved us is after two qualifications. First is a negative qualification – But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness. Don’t miss that – He did not save us based on our good deeds. The good things we have done. We’ve already seen the bad news of the gospel, that is there is no one good – not even one. There is no one who does enough good deeds to merit salvation. No – we were foolish and disobedient, deceived and enslaved to sin, malicious and envious, hated and haters.
We did not earn or deserve salvation. It’s not on the basis of our deeds done in righteousness. We don’t have any. Paul said it this way in Galatians 2:16, “nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law.” Keeping a set of rules – even God’s rules – won’t work, because we can’t. We were slaves to sin.
We all know Ephesians 2:8-9 – For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Back in our text, Paul goes from the negative to the positive basis – not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness (since we don’t have any), but according to His mercy. Do you see? It’s not because we earned it – in fact, we deserved the opposite – we deserved eternal condemnation and punishment. But God showed us mercy, which is defined as not getting what we do deserve. So while we deserved condemnation, He released us from the consequences of our sin. We had no good deeds to earn righteousness, so God gave us mercy. And through mercy, He saved us. Finally, He saved us, appears. Not because of any perceived good that we have done, but by His mercy, He saved us.
Bringing us to, how did He save us – what were the means of this saving grace? By the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Notice, now we see another person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit – involved in our salvation. Regeneration is the work of the Spirit by which He makes us alive in Christ. Remember, because we were sinners by nature and action, we were dead in trespasses and sin. There was nothing we could do to earn our salvation. We were dead, enslaved, hopelessly and helplessly lost. But the Holy Spirit made us alive – caused us to be born again so that we could and would believe the gospel. It’s not your belief that causes you to be born again; it is being born again that causes you to believe.
That’s what the passage in John 3 talks about where Jesus told Nicodemus, you must be born again. It’s not a command there – He wasn’t telling Nicodemus to be born again. It was a statement of fact – you must be born again, regenerated by the Spirit to be made alive to believe the Gospel. That’s the work of regeneration. You were dead – the Spirit made you alive.
Now, some see this washing of regeneration as referring to baptism. I don’t really have a problem with that – as long as we see baptism as a sign or a symbol pointing to the thing signified. We are baptized, an external sign pointing to the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration to wash away our sins, and make us alive in Christ. I don’t have a problem with that – listen, we separate baptism way too far from salvation. I was born again, I confessed and believed, and I was converted. And one day, I might even get around to baptism. No – baptism is the external picture – confession – of the inward reality of the washing regeneration.
But more likely than baptism, this is a reference to the promise of the New Covenant in Ezekiel 36:
25 “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.
26 “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
27 “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Further, the Holy Spirit renews us. Some suggest this is simply a synonym of regeneration, and it may be. But others suggest renewal is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us so that we do good deeds. Not to be saved, but because we have been saved. This has been a theme throughout the letter. For example, in 2:11-12, he said, For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” So the Holy Spirit begins a lifelong process of renewal in us.
Don’t miss verse 6, whom He (that is, the Father) poured out upon richly (abundantly) through Jesus Christ our Savior – the third member of the Trinity involved in our salvation. The Father pours out the Spirit upon us richly through the work of Christ. The Trinity is involved in our salvation. It could be said this way – The Father loved us and planned the way of salvation, Jesus carried out the plan of salvation through His work on the cross, and the Holy Spirit applies the work of salvation through regeneration and renewal.
Which brings us to the last point – the results of saving grace in verse 7. So that – that’s a purpose clause – so that being justified by His grace – stop right there a moment. We’ve seen salvation, we’ve seen regeneration, we’ve seen renewal – and now we see justification. This is an incredibly rich passage. We are justified – that is, our sins are removed, and we receive the righteousness of Christ through grace. We’ve seen mercy, not getting what we do deserve; now we see grace – that is, getting what we don’t deserve. Rich, justifying grace. Unearned, undeserved. So that we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
We are God’s children, and therefore co-heirs with Christ. And we have received now the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance – namely, the Holy Spirit – by whom we have the rock-solid hope of eternal life. The Holy Spirit is your down payment, you see – forgiveness of sin and eternal life are yours.
I’m out of time. A couple weeks ago, as Pastor Josh preached about the love of Christ on the fourth Sunday of Advent, he reminded us of a familiar illustration. When you go to a jewelry store and ask to look at a diamond or pearl, they place it against a black backdrop. Why? To make the jewel shine more brightly. The brilliant jewel of Christ, as seen in the gospel against the black backdrop of our sin – is most glorious.
I know we don’t like to be called wretches. We don’t even like to be called sinners. But it is who we were – miserable, rebellious wretches saved by the amazing grace of God. And all it takes to comprehend the depth of our depravity is the cost to pay for our sin. The cost of our redemption – to buy us out of the slave market of sin. It cost the life of God’s Son, who bore our sins in His body on a cross. That is clarifying, and humbling. It makes little of us, and much of Christ.
First Sunday of month/New Year. We observe communion monthly, to be reminded of the work of Christ for us. Perhaps it should also be a humbling reminder of our sin and the great cost to save us.